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Saturday sports: NHL says no to Olympics; new Peng Shuai video; NFL, NBA keep games

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Merry Christmas. And nothing says Christmas like, it's time for sports.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: The NHL says that its players won't go to Beijing for the Winter Olympics. Peng Shuai surfaces in another video, but tennis officials are unconvinced. Lots of NFL and NBA games this weekend, despite that wave of the omicron strain.

ESPN's Michele Steele joins us this Christmas morning. Merry Christmas. Thanks for spending a few minutes with us.

MICHELE STEELE: Merry Christmas to you, Scott.

SIMON: Look, the NHL decision - totally understandable, given the rise of omicron - but then, still, you think of young athletes who worked to get there since they first strapped on their skates. I was struck by what Sid the Kid Crosby said - who's been to two Olympics. These are opportunities and experiences of a lifetime; you might only get one.

STEELE: Yeah, yeah. No Auston Matthews, no Patrick Kane for hockey fans in their Olympic stockings this year. They will not be representing Team USA - which, you know, some say, Scott, that they would have sent their deepest roster ever since the Miracle on Ice team...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...In 1980. But this all felt inevitable, right? You mentioned it. The NHL says that COVID's really ripping through rosters here. They're pressing pause on the season. They're not going to be sending any guys to the Olympics in Beijing. So we're going to see players pulled from minor league teams, the American Hockey League, college and the Euro leagues. Those guys are going to get their chance.

SIMON: Well, and good for them - other Olympic implications in this new video posted by a pro-Chinese Singapore site - shows the great tennis star Peng Shuai denying that she ever said she was sexually assaulted by a former Chinese vice premier. What do you make of this video?

STEELE: Yeah - kind of related to the Beijing Games, again, because Peng Shuai was seen at an event this week promoting the Winter Olympics, which of course are in China this year. And she kind of appeared to bump into a reporter from a friendly newspaper, who happened to have a video camera with her. And Peng seemed to retract all her claims - her claims last month that she was sexually assaulted by a Communist Party leader - the former vice premier, Zhang Gaoli. And we're tracking this for ESPN. She essentially said, that never happened. I'm fine. And you know what? The Women's Tennis Association, which, by the way, Scott, canceled all events in China and Hong Kong...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: You don't see that from professional leagues very often - they released a statement saying they're still worried about her, and they're calling for a full and transparent investigation into her claims.

SIMON: Let me ask you about the NFL - Browns, Packers, Colts, Cardinals. Has the NFL make a decision just to pull ahead whatever kind of cancellations they have because of COVID?

STEELE: Yeah, pretty much. You know, we've seen the NHL pressing pause. The NFL is committed to playing its entire 18-week schedule, plus the playoffs, of course. More than 300 players have tested positive over the last two weeks, Scott. That's a lot. That's over 10% of rosters.

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: And since then, the league has tweaked the rules. They are not testing vaccinated guys weekly like they were before. They're only testing if you're symptomatic. They say that the data shows that there is mainly symptomatic transmission in facilities - not asymptomatic. They're going to be doing a little bit of random testing, too. But there's 50 days till the Super Bowl, Scott. And the NFL is committing to playing all those games and hoping that they can keep players who say they feel good on the field until then.

SIMON: Michele, there are five NBA games on today, from noon to 10:30 p.m. tonight Eastern Time. But let me ask you about the Boston-Milwaukee game. We're going to see the reappearance of Joe Johnson.

STEELE: Yeah. The Celtics are one of those teams who have been very, very hard-hit by COVID. So the NBA's allowing those teams to sign players via hardship waivers. And the Celtics have signed a guy that they drafted 20 years ago - 40-year-old Joe Johnson. He was sitting...

SIMON: Help us out.

STEELE: ...At home, Scott, this week - yeah, I know - in Little Rock. Forty is when normally NBA guys are, like, coaching or doing analysis on TV. Nope. He got signed to a 10-day contract. He scored in the final minutes of a win against Cleveland this week.

SIMON: Oh.

STEELE: Scott, the crowd went wild. He's suiting up...

SIMON: Yeah.

STEELE: ...Today again. So sometimes you can go home again - as long as you're in NBA shape.

SIMON: ESPN's Michele Steele - thanks so much.

STEELE: You bet. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.